“Return of the Drinking Buddy” does more character work than most episodes of Son Of Zorn do. The episode finally holds up a mirror to Zorn, allowing its completely self-centered protagonist to do some much needed introspection. Son Of Zorn’s biggest problem all season has been Zorn. He’s a sketch character in a narrative intended to be more sustainable and evolving than a sketch. But when Zorn’s old Zephyrian drinking buddy Headbutt Man comes to Orange County, Zorn is forced to finally see himself for who he really is. And he suffers some real consequences.
Headbutt Man provides Zorn a glimpse of who Zorn could be, suggesting that the Zephyrian man-child could become a better, more mature man and father figure. After years of partying and headbutting, Headbutt Man has settled down. Cheese night with Edie and Craig sounds more appealing to him than a night of rambunctious drinking with his old friend. In fact, he’s sober. And his human girlfriend Elizabeth helped him get there. Here, Son Of Zorn falls into stereotypical gender roles: Elizabeth’s only role is as Headbutt Man’s fixer. And then, to make matters worse, Elizabeth is given a bizarre and stupid storyline with Edie that amounts to woman-on-woman jealousy; it says nothing about either character and makes them both seem petty and air headed. Edie has been established as a badass boss, so why give her this silly subplot?
Son Of Zorn deals rather explicitly in stereotypes. Zorn is the headstrong meathead who thinks everyone else is the problem. Alan is the fumbling, insecure teenage boy who overcompensates due to fragile masculinity. Edie is the reformed, wild girl. It’s hard to make a show about stereotypes click. But “Return of the Drinking Buddy” is the first time Son Of Zorn really uses those stereotypes — at least when it comes to Zorn and Alan — to tell a more nuanced story. Zorn confronts his stubbornness — and even his own mortality — in this episode. He foolishly leads his sober friend back to drinking, and then learns that his actions could literally kill him. Zorn has yet to face any long-term consequences on this show, but given the episode’s cliffhanger, it looks like he is finally going to have to reconcile his boy-warrior ways.
All season, Alan has felt like an afterthought. The show is so bafflingly bad at telling stories about teens that everything involving Alan — with the exception of his refreshing relationship with Craig — winds up stuck in trite and predictable territory. The dialogue for the teen characters is, no doubt, intentionally bad. But the self-awareness is more lazy than it is clever. The mean girl host of the party Alan ends up attending in order to get closer to his crush, delivers cringe-worthy lines that aren’t funny. Headbutt Girl, Headbutt Man’s daughter who Edie insists Alan takes to the party, similarly doles out one-liners that just hang in the air, weightless and forgettable. But her presence ends up pushing Alan along a genuinely, emotional journey that deals with clichés, but still manages to be pretty grounded and real in the end.
Son Of Zorn hasn’t done enough with Alan’s internal struggle over being half-Zephyrian. It has come up in past episodes, but the link between Alan wanting to fit in and hating his body has not been explicitly made until “Return of the Drinking Buddy.” He refuses to get in the pool, scared to expose his cartoon legs. But he also ends up standing up for Headbutt Girl — a critical scene for the character. He praises her ability to be herself, and Son Of Zorn, in a rare move, exercises restraint by not turning this into some big hero moment for Alan. He defends Headbutt Girl, but he keeps his pants on. He keeps his true self hidden. While this show tends to go for the most obvious of plot beats, there’s something a bit unexpected about Alan’s lack of resolution. Son Of Zorn doesn’t turn self-acceptance into some easy, straightforward arc.
But all the strong character work done for both Alan and Zorn comes at the expense of the show’s female characters. Son Of Zorn has yet to become the thoughtful critique of toxic masculinity that its premise initially suggested, because the show itself keeps women in very confined places. They are the caretakers. They are the blank slates for the male characters to project their own insecurities onto. Alan and Zorn start to break out of their boxes, but the women are still stuck.
All the best parts of “Return of the Drinking Buddy” are grounded and dark, like the moment when Headbutt Man breaks his sobriety, or the moment when Alan praises the very qualities he can’t bring himself to embody. Those are two human storylines, but they get spiced up with some Zephyrian wackiness. That’s how it should be. The comedy should add layers to those moments, not take away from them. “Return of the Drinking Buddy” provides these layers and interesting interplay of the show’s elements when it comes to Zorn and Alan, but there’s still a general discord in the show’s narrative. And the only character who doesn’t fit a specific stereotype (Craig) is still the most fun character to watch. Playing within the confines of clichés and stereotypes can work if Son Of Zorn were more willing to take emotional risks with its characters.